Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Vigil at the Casino

I knew what I had found familiar about the motion of my hands as I looked down upon my early morning task—rolling up the long hand-made Women in Black banners with their white painted words protesting the Israeli occupation and asserting that we refused to be enemies was much like the opening of the Torah scrolls; these were my sacred Jewish words, and I had the responsibility of carrying them, not through the seated crowds of the synagogue, but onto the number 55 tram that rattled its way past the zoo, past Victoria’s Market and left me off in the heart of downtown Melbourne, right in the midst of the packed end-of-the-work day mobs pushing to make their trains out of Flinders Station. I was a 68 Jewish woman rushing to meet my comrades, Marg and Alex, for a peace vigil outside the Crown Casino, the Crown Casino, that most worldly of places which caters to high rollers and desperate housewives, was where the United Israel Appeal had chosen to have its “gala” dinner and the new Labour Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, was to honor the gathering with his presence and his words of support. We had decided that we too should be part of this event—standing along the driveway entrance to the massive hotel along with members of Palestinian advocacy groups.

Here I drop whatever bravado has been hiding in my words—our usual Women in Black vigils are done in a rather safe place—on a wide, bustling shopping street in downtown Melbourne. There in our hour, we come across a wide spectrum of citizens and they come across us. We do not stand in the heart of the Jewish community here, in Ackland Street with its Eastern European bakeries and cafes or on Balaclava Street with its wonderful kosher market places or in front of the Synagogue in Toorak. As an old New Yorker, I have to smile here—many Jews in Melbourne live in their own part of town, they are not “everywhere,” as in New York—that is why, several months ago, I was asked by two Gentile Melbourne women soon leaving on their first New York visit—“please tell us where the Jewish section is?”

But this vigil was going to be different and it was. All through the confrontations and the glares from the hundreds of cars that drove past us, I kept thinking of the courage of the women who stand in Hagar Square in Jerusalem, particularly after the killing of the Yeshiva students and the women and men in the occupied territories who dare to speak for non-violent protests after their streets have been littered with the bodies of children. I will not speak for Alex or Marg, but only for myself of what the confrontations meant to me—the image of car after car pulling into the hotel’s entrance, the looks of shock as the passengers first saw the gathered Palestinian protestors with their signs, Israel Equals Apartheid, and then as they turned their heads and saw our banners and our tee shirts that read in Hebrew and Arabic, end the occupation. We had already had our pictures and names taken by a short man in a white business suit who said he was part of the Crown Casino security force—reminding me of the FBI surveillance of the peace marches in the early sixties—but what struck me the most in the faces I saw through the car windows and on the people who walked by us on their way into the dinner, was the fear I saw—first fear, then rage when they realized we were also Jewish. “You should be ashamed of yourselves…Don’t you worry, Israel is STRONG! …Traitors…How can you do this?”Younger women put protective arms around yarmulked old men. We were tref personified. The enemy from within. I stood sometimes answering that the occupation was the greatest shanda (shame) of all using my Yiddish tongue, my beloved few words of Yiddish handed down to me by my mother and her New York garment industry world. Women’s faces turned to me in disgust and soon I just stood, looking very hard at what I was seeing and feeling all the losses that my positioning had engendered. I knew what I was seeing, the careful dressing for the public celebration of Israel, of being Jewish, the carefully coiffure hair, the well made dresses, the lame tops—this was an Affair. The Prime Minister was speaking to the cream of Melbourne’s Jewish community, this was an Affair. And there we were, so few in number, but enough to bring back the fear, the fear that allows the most brutal of repressions because you know under it all, they will hate us again. All around me on this “festive” night was despair—the anger and pain of the Palestinians with their flag, trying to break into this ever moving column of supporters of their suffering, not with their bodies, with their shouts and their signs and their words, perhaps sixty of them and three of us, rooted in our own knowledge that terrible things were happening in the name of Jewish safety, and that as Jews, we could not be silent partners in the disaster that is the occupation, and to the celebrants in their tightly closed cars, where even a few voices of dissent, brought it all back and in my so sad heart, I felt as Jewish as I have ever been—standing on the margins of history but so strangely, so Jewishly, right in the heart of it.

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